Day 1: All Aboard the Ursa Major

Sitka, Alaska

It's an early morning departure for our team. We are seven in all: Soren Nielsen and Taylor Antisdel (the documentary filmmakers), David Benjamin Sherry (the artist/photographer), his assistant Reka Reisinger, and the Bridge team (Kate Fleming and I). We will be meeting Alaska Whale Foundation Director Dr. Andy Szabo in the evening, but first we need to load the trusty Ursa Major with all the gear, and between the film crew and the photographer, we are far from traveling “light".

The Ursa Major, run by Captain Josh Haury and First Mate Emily Waschak, is a beaut of a boat — a classic Norwegian wooden trawler launched in 1972. At 65 feet long and 20 feet wide, with three staterooms and ample deck space, there's plenty of space for the team to spread out and take in the beauty of our surroundings.

Josh and Emily batten down the hatches and prepare to go underway through the inside passage by way of the narrowest of waterways. Around the dining table in the salon, Josh charts our course. We need to get going very quickly in order to make the tide through Seurgis Narrows, which runs like a river. "You literally go backwards if you don’t time it correctly," says the captain. This will take about three hours to get up into the open part of Peril Strait. Our destination is Lake Eva, a tiny lake on the east side of Baranof island. We will anchor at around 4 in the afternoon.

We make the tide, and better yet, we spot our first humpback whale of the trip. Kate explains that the Dr. Andy Szabo, the scientist we who will be joining us, has been flying drones as part of the SnotBot project. Rather than harass the animals, scientists are using custom built drones to collect DNA from the whale's lung lining, or simply put, snot. This way it's possible to see virus and bacteria loads, analyze DNA, and look for environmental toxins that have been absorbed into the whale’s system. Perhaps most importantly, scientists can test for levels of hormones, which gives information on the reproductive cycles and stress levels of these creatures as they are increasingly impacted by human activity. The alternative is to tag the whales, which is both time consuming and distressing for the animals.

Underway, we also see evidence of Yellow Cedar Decline, a direct and staggering result of climate change. The cause of tree death has been linked to root freezing when snow is not present to protect the shallow roots from extreme soil temperatures. With warmer winters, and snowfall decreasing, these valuable cultural and commercial trees are at risk. As of 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned to put yellow cedar on the endangered species list, which would make the first tree species to be considered.

Just as planned, we make the anchor at Lake Eva by 4 pm. Hours of daylight stretch ahead of us. The overcast sky has given way to bright sun. Soren and Taylor spot a bear on the shore and jump on the skiff to get footage. The rest of us watch from the boat, giddy for the adventures to come.

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